MANDAN, N.D. -- The State Board of Higher Education voted 7-1 to extend North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott’s contract to 2020 during the board’s regular meeting Thursday.

Mike Ness, whose term will be up at the end of June, was the only “no” vote.

During discussions about the chancellor’s contract, Ness suggested the board delay the immediate extension of Hagerott’s contract until a legal matter with a former vice chancellor, Lisa Feldner, is resolved.

Feldner was fired last year by Hagerott “without cause.” Later in 2017, Feldner filed documents with the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights, accusing the head of the state university system of gender discrimination. Feldner also alleged Hagerott was a sexist manager who singled out employees for matters of health, age and sexual orientation.

Her discrimination claim has been transferred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal office that investigates workplace civil rights claims.

Ness said that while he thinks “all of us like the chancellor a great deal,” there are issues that need to be dealt with, including the Feldner lawsuit.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the board to wait six months to determine how that lawsuit shakes out,” Ness said, noting that board members were not aware of ongoing issues until last fall.

Nick Vaughn, the board’s legal counsel, said he did not have an update on the status of the case, but it could be a matter of months or even years before the matter is resolved.

Former chair and current board member Kathleen Neset gave her full support to renew the chancellor’s contract immediately and said she felt Hagerott’s evaluation was very thorough.

“I will say of all the people I have worked with professionally I find Chancellor Hagerott to be one of the most coachable and responsive people to constructive criticism to his style of work,” she said. “I think progress was made, and I think it’s displayed in the chancellor’s evaluation.”

Hagerott received a positive, overall review from SBHE Chair Don Morton earlier this month, but a survey review sent to all voting members of the board included some dissent from the board about how the chancellor’s office has handled staffing concerns, among other issues.

The overall summary review written by Morton did not mention the Feldner case. Morton said in a phone interview Thursday that the case was not mentioned because “we feel very confident on how that was handled.” He added that a summary review is simply a summary of the chancellor’s work and that he also has conversations with the chancellor with feedback, which is not public.

“We just feel very confident that he handled that whole thing very well,” Morton said. “Time will tell what the attorneys think. Right now it’s with the Equal Employment Opportunity people in the federal government. That may take years to get a decision, but we feel very good that he did everything right.”

Morton said that university presidents and others within the system get a contract, but vice chancellors like Feldner do not. Morton said that vice chancellors “serve at the will of the chancellor” and can be fired, without cause or for a variety of reasons, such as performance or a change in strategy where a different skill set is needed.

“You can be let go without cause but that comes also with six months of compensation. … It’s called ‘you serve at will’ and that’s a common practice in our society, it’s a common practice in higher ed, so there’s nothing illegal there. Her discrimination claims we dispute and we’ve responded to the Equal Opportunity Employment people and they’ll decide,” he said. “So, we feel confident and that’s why we wanted to extend his contract too.”

Ness and Hagerott each said that they feel the chancellor’s contract should be considered as presidents’ contracts are and be dealt with in executive session in order to protect employees.

Morton said he appreciated Ness for being a “sounding board” for the board, as well as for the board’s diversity of thought on the matter.

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